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As Providence crafts its reparations program, expectations are high

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced the creation of a reparations program.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced the creation of a reparations program.Dan McGowan/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE – As Mayor Jorge Elorza prepared to announce that Providence would begin the process of implementing a reparations program for Black and Indigenous people, he knew the kinds of questions that he was about to be asked.

How much will this cost? Who will be eligible? What kind of investments will be made?

Urging community members to “trust the process,” Elorza insisted Wednesday that all of those questions will be answered in time. He said the first step is a fact-finding mission to understand to the true extent of Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade, followed by a public reconciliation process to atone for the “pervading anti-Blackness” that is still present in society.

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“These are all legitimate questions, but they’re questions for another day,” Elorza told dozens of community leaders and elected officials who gathered Wednesday morning at the Dexter Park and Training Grounds, the site where the first Black company of soldiers from Rhode Island trained during the Civil War.

But even as Elorza says his goal is to put a “marker on the ground” to show the city’s commitment to reparations, leaders from Black and Indigenous communities say they are holding Providence officials accountable for following through on the bold pledge.

Some are even drawing a line in the sand.

City Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, a Democrat from South Providence who spent her career challenging racial injustice as an activist and was elected to the council in 2014, said she believes a commitment to reparations means “restitution that is intrinsically connected, dollar for dollar, to the value of the uncompensated services provided by generations of Black slaves.”

While Harris stopped short of calling for the city to issue direct payments to Black and Indigenous people, she said that down payment assistance for homes or tax abatement programs would “not meet the criteria that is collectively conjured when we think of what is owed to these families.”

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“2020 is definitely not the year to over-promise and under-deliver,” Harris said.

Others say substantive investments across multiple parts of the community is the answer.

James Vincent, president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP, said he wants to see the city commit to narrowing the disparity gap when it comes to the health, education, housing, and businesses sectors.

Vincent called “reparations” a charged word that generates emotional reactions from both supporters and opponents, but he said Elorza has the opportunity to craft a program that will be inclusive and beneficial to all residents.

“We’re not looking for a guarantee of outcomes; we’re looking for a guarantee of opportunity,” Vincent said.

Providence is not the first city in the country to unveil a plan for reparations.

  • Last year, the City Council in Evanston, Illinois, approved a proposal to use tax revenue from the sale of recreational cannabis to support reparations, and the council created a committee to study how the funds should be spent.
  • In 2015, as a response to decades of police misconduct, the Chicago City Council created a reparations program that includes payments and scholarships.
  • Just this week, the City Council in Asheville, North Carolina, unanimously approved a resolution apologizing to Black people for the city’s role in sanctioning slavery and engaging in other discriminatory practices, and committing to establishing a Community Reparations Commission.

Elorza, who signed an executive order to kick off the process, said he wants to hear from community members before committing to a specific plan for reparations, but said he doesn’t want planning to “drag on for a year.” He said it’s more likely that the process will take several months, and the city will publicize a list of deliverables along the way.

“We’re going to take our time to do it right, but at the same time, we’re going to act with urgency,” Elorza said.

Keith Stokes, a vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group, a historical consulting firm, said too much of the state and country’s history has been told from the “owner’s class viewpoint,” but Providence has the chance to “lead the nation on how we tell the inclusive history of all Americans through public memorials, public investments, and public education.”

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Stokes said the city can build off a 1795 reparations plan that targeted financial, educational, and trade skill investments that helped his maternal ancestors gain a head start toward self-sufficiency.

“Rather than only taking statues down and removing state names, we should also be advancing African heritage and history in our public schools and reclaiming public spaces that include memorials that represent all the people,” Stokes said.

For veteran Indigenous people’s activist Raymond Two Hawks Watson, the work will be the most important part of the process.

Watson said that success is still undefinable because “I’ve never had an opportunity to have proactive discussions on reparations” with city leaders, but he said he’d like to see changes to school curricula and investments in small businesses.

He said Elorza’s announcement was courageous because a goal has been set, but he said that allowing the community to have a seat at the table is the right approach.

“Mayors come and mayors go,” Watson said. “The community will always be here.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.